Shanghaied by unexpected beauty

Last night I made a literary discovery on YouTube.

It was reminiscent of walking quickly, collar-raised, through a boisterous neighbourhood, skimming the fascinating but tawdry windows, and hearing, clarion-bright, the sound of an accomplished musician above the din of car honks and conversations.

The voice I heard was that of Billy Collins, an American writer who was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. I admit freely that Collins (despite his Irish last name) has never pinged on my radar before. Poetry–an art form I regard highly–is not one to which I allot much time. Which is a shame.

Collins has a wonderful poet’s voice, mellow and engaging, and his work is clear and humourous. Often he ponders subjects in a surreal, playful manner to highlight the strangeness of the restless human mind.

It means his work is perfect for visual accompaniment. Several gifted animators have created pieces to gild his poetry, and they are available to enjoy on YouTube. Such as “Forgetfulness”, or “The Dead”. You can consider “The Best Cigarette”, and wonder about “Some Days”, “Hunger”, and “Now and Then”.

My favourite is “Budapest”, because the animation is so striking, and it is about writing and the imagination.

When I watch and listen to such beautiful fusions of image and content I am struck at the richness and depth of the human creative spirit.

Collins released a spoken-word CD of poems, The Best Cigarette, which now has a creative commons licence. You can download the entire collection from for free. It reminds me that poems should be spoken aloud. That they attain a new life when verbalised, especially by the creator. In particular, I think “Japan” is gorgeous.

For some reason I am reminded strongly of my first week at Clarion West, where at the end of each morning’s class Paul Park‘s melodious tones transported us to different worlds as he recited short stories.

Then, I stumbled upon a crackly video of Tom Waits and Bono reciting Bukowski. I am somewhat familiar with Charles Bukowski, but certainly I am aware of his life and his struggle to write. As a die-hard Tom Waits fan it is a pleasure to listen to the master give life to “The Laughing Heart”. I’m less fond of the Bono recital, or the effects used during it, although the poem is good.

While reacquainting myself with Bukowski I discovered that the epitaph on his grave was “Don’t Try”. I mulled over that, admiring the different ways you could interpret it.

I realised what I would like on my gravestone – a plain low marker, under a tree preferably, to note where my ashes are cast:


I think it reflects the spirit of Bukowski’s poem:

The Laughing Heart

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvellous
the gods wait to delight
in you.